Stewart at the Kennedy Center.
Photo: Scott Suchman for WETA
Jon Stewart has not been getting great press lately. In recent weeks, the former host of The Daily Show and current host of Apple TV + ‘s The Problem With Jon Stewart has generated headlines because his latest show has not connected with viewers (“Jon Stewart’s Struggles Add to List of Streaming Talk Show Flops,” said a Bloomberg story) and because Stewart does not seem, to some, to be fully connecting with the current cultural moment: “What Happened to Jon Stewart?” asked both a Variety piece back in February and an even more in-depth analysis of Stewart’s place in the comedy / political realm more recently in The Atlantic. But none of that mattered on the night of April 24 at the Kennedy Center in DC, where Stewart was given the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and celebrated by many of his former colleagues and close comedy friends, including Steve Carell, Jimmy Kimmel, Dave Chappelle, Samantha Bee, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Pete Davidson (yes, Kim Kardashian was there with him), and former Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn. (Yes, John Mulaney was there with her too).
The event, to be broadcast June 21 on PBS, marked the first time the Mark Twain Prize ceremony had been held since 2019 when the award was given to Chappelle, and everything about the evening had a “We’re back, baby!” vibe. “Back,” assuming you agree with the essays asking what happened to him: Jon Stewart! “Back,” more specifically: Stewart at the height of his powers on The Daily Show, as evidenced by numerous clip packages sprinkled throughout the program! “Back,” as in dressing up and going to large events in Washington, DC, to laugh at famous funny people, a trend set to continue next weekend when Stewart’s Daily Show successor Trevor Noah emcees the first kinda sorta-normal White House Correspondents’ Dinner since Obama left office! (Noah was originally on an early list of presenters for the Mark Twain Prize ceremony, but did not attend.)
The ceremony also provided an opportunity to shit-talk Stewart in a very public setting in front of him and his entire family, including his 90-year-old mother.
“I can’t tell you how amazing it is to be here honoring Jon Stewart in front of the largest audience he had in years,” said Pete Davidson, later adding, “Jon is loyal. Friendship isn’t something he half-asses, like acting. Or gives up on quickly, like directing. ”
Olivia Munn recalled how she found a box of Emmy Awards in Stewart’s very messy Daily Show office: “Some people might put their Emmys on a shelf or behind glass. But not Jon Stewart. His are in a cardboard box, shoved behind a door. Because that’s who he is: lazy and vaguely disrespectful. ”
In one of the night’s funniest speeches, Steve Carell commented on the grueling aspects of Daily Show field reports: “Jon sent Stephen [Colbert] and I out to do a report about the effects of alcohol on motor skills. In a loosely controlled experiment, I drank six Long Island Iced Teas in the course of about 45 minutes while Stephen tested my cognitive abilities. On the way home, I threw up out the window of Stephen’s car. Unfortunately, the window was closed… Jon was always supporting us, always cheering us on, from the comfort and safety of his office. ”
Colbert, who was diagnosed with COVID-19 last week and appeared via video, managed to be both moving and dismissive at the same time while recalling a particularly successful Daily Show episode during the 2000 presidential election cycle. “As we went into the last commercial break – and I don’t know if you remember this Jon, but this is true – under the applause, I said to you what was in my heart, what I knew to be true. I said that this is the best job on television, ”Colbert recalled. “And as well as the show had gone that night, and it did, I know now that what I was really saying to you was the best job on television was working for you. I meant that when I said it in 2000, and 22 years later… [Pause.] I no longer mean that. I make more money. I have a much bigger audience. People chant my name. CBS has a plane that I can sometimes use, where you can get up and get your own Diet Coke and peanuts or whatever. ”
John Oliver, another Daily Show alum, also appeared via video and delivered a lengthy eulogy for his former boss after insisting that Stewart would die before listening to so many people praise him at a high-profile awards ceremony. “He just would not put himself in the position where he’s spending two hours, conservatively two hours, squirming in his seat as he hears how much he means to people, ”Oliver insisted. “He would rather be dead than let that happen, which is why I’m so glad that he is.”
While there was plenty of good-natured roasting during the tribute, every set of remarks eventually turned sincere as people expressed Stewart’s commitment to them and others as a mentor, advocate, and ally. Chappelle, who spoke after a nice New Jersey neighbor of Stewart’s named Bruce Springsteen played an acoustic version of “Born to Run,” focused, like Davidson, on Stewart’s loyalty in a nine-minute speech that the comedian said he had not prepared in advance ; the teleprompter was blank the entire time he talked. “You are a cure to what ails our culture. You are a voice that people consistently trust. I wish that you’d run for president, but I imagine that would be hard for a coke guy to do, ”Chappelle said in a callback to a previous joke he had made about Stewart’s willingness to appear in Chappelle’s first film Half Baked (“I don’t even know if he smoked weed. He seemed like a coke guy”).
Stewart was clearly selected for the Mark Twain Prize in this particularly fraught year, when both the lingering impact of the pandemic and the current tensions in Ukraine loom large, because his career has involved making jokes at politicians’ expense while pushing for real political change. To drive home that point, the bust of Mark Twain was presented to Stewart at the end of the night by John Feal, a 9/11 first responder who has worked with Stewart to reinstate the 9/11 compensation fund, and Israel del Toro, a veteran to whom Stewart presented the Pat Tillman Award at the 2017 ESPYs.
Stewart made some cracks about the award during his acceptance speech – “Here’s how prestigious it is: Almost none of the other recipients turned out to be serial rapists” – but eventually did what he has always done: taken a light moment and deepened it with social commentary. “There’s a lot of talk right now about what’s going to happen to comedy,” he said. “There was ‘The Slap’ and ‘What Does the Slap Say About Comedy?’ and ‘Is Comedy Going to Survive in This New Moment?’ I’ve got news for you: Comedy survives every moment. Bassem Youssef here is a really great example of the true threat to comedy. ” Stewart then gestured toward Youssef, a comedian who paid tribute to Stewart earlier in the evening and spoke about hosting his own Daily Show–Esque program in Egypt, where authorities targeted him due to the nature of his political satire.
“It’s not the woke police that are going to be an existential threat to comedy,” Stewart continued. “It’s not the Fresh Prince, it’s the crown prince. It’s not the fragility of audiences, it’s the fragility of leaders… Comedy doesn’t change the world, but it’s a bellwether. We’re the banana peel in the coal mine. When society is under threat, comedians are the ones who get sent away first. It’s just a reminder to people that democracy is under threat. ”
This was Jon Stewart at his Jon Stewart-ist. By the end of the night, despite articles asking what happened to him and John Oliver’s contention that he was, in fact, dead, it was clear that he is still here and still eager to make his voice heard.